Canada’s human rights failures on COVID

Posted on Thursday, October 1, 2020

Author: Prof. Errol Mendes

Errol Mendes

Member of the Advisory Committee, ISSP
Professor, Faculty of Law, uOttawa

On Thursday, September 24, the ISSP hosted Food for Thought event Science, Society and Policy in the Age of COVID19: What Changes will Stick? Which will Prove Fleeting?. This blog is an adaptation of the speaker’s remarks.

When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, everyone was saying that we are all in it together. Six months in, it is clear that we are not. We have seen huge disparities in terms of the impacts of this virus on the elderly, the unemployed and underemployed, women, Indigenous peoples and racialized minorities. In other words, the majority of our population.

Let’s start with the elderly. Across the country, between 77 and 80 percent of COVID-related deaths have come from long-term care facilities. It is stunning that this is still going on and it is reinforced by the failures of government to acknowledge the role that they have played in it. According to the Globe and Mail, the Ontario government is not guaranteeing the health and safety of residents in these facilities, stating that the responsibility lies with those who actually run and operate them. Keep in mind that the Ontario Ministry of Long-Term Care regulates, licenses and inspects the province’s 623 long-term care homes. They are now being sued for $500 million for their role in these deaths and this suffering.

I was pleased to see an acknowledgment of these issues in the Speech from the Throne. We may see national standards for long-term care homes or even consideration of criminal prosecutions against those who actively cause deaths and severe suffering of the elderly. But will responsibility fall to the individual overburdened caretakers, or will it be the organizations who run these facilities? That has not been determined.

If we turn to unemployment, we again see incredible disparities. Let’s first consider women, the majority of this country’s population. Women with higher-paying jobs have, to a large extent, not suffered as much as women with lower incomes, especially those with children. The aggregate hours worked by mothers of children under six is down 17 percent compared to just 4 percent of men with children under six.

If we turn to race, some stunning unemployment figures are coming out of Statistics Canada, which only started conducting race-based analysis of the labor market in July. All non-white racial groups are experiencing much higher levels of unemployment than their white counterparts. South Asians and off-reserve Indigenous workers were at the greatest disadvantage, with unemployment rates at 17.8 percent compared to 9.3 percent overall. The picture for gig workers is even worse.

I was again pleased to see the Speech from the Throne acknowledge that women have faced a larger burden in this, along with the interesting statement that there is going to be a feminist intersectional approach to remedy these inequalities. There was also acknowledgement of discrimination, but nothing much in terms rectifying the employment challenges that racialized groups face in the long term.

Here lies the rub. How do we reconcile ourselves as a country that pays attention to inequality, that tells the rest of the world that we are champions of inclusion and human rights for all, and tell the rest of the world that they should do better? We have a lot of work to do.

We need a massive build out of our social infrastructure to meet these fundamental challenges of governance and regulation. If we do not, this is not going to be the last catastrophe we will face. Some scientists say that there are multiple pandemics lining up behind this one. Getting in front of the next crisis will require profound examination and preparation by our best minds and our best practitioners. In the long run, all Canadians must rethink our social infrastructure and our governance structures. The question we must now ask ourselves is whether we are capable of that.

For higher-paid workers, the recession caused by the pandemic ended in August. The rest of the population is still suffering great economic and social distress. New social infrastructure must focus on raising the economic and social floor for the majority of the population. This would require giving a greater voice to those that are willing to challenge the present structures that entrench inequality. Measures designed to “raise the floor” for the majority of Canadians could include the establishment of a Universal Basic Income and free post-secondary education for those that cannot afford to pay. We are also seeing greater demand for more progressive judicial rulings and new mechanisms and funding to combat systemic discrimination against women, racial minorities and the elderly in employment, education, the criminal justice system, housing and health care.

These are not options to consider after we have defeated the pandemic. It is essential to “raise the floor” at the height of the pandemic because COVID-19 has a compelling moral impact. If it results in massive and unequal suffering, it could confine the whole country to an increasingly fractured social, political and economic future long after we have beaten this virus.

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